Political Life’s Mysteries

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"Political Life’s Mysteries"

A bunch of people gather to listen to some dull moralist talk about a "complicated" bill that nobody can fully understand. (wikimedia)

A bunch of people gather to listen to some dull moralist talk (wikimedia)

Julian Sanchez has a post bemoaning “the depressing rarity with which people actually understand the views of people with different ideologies.” It got me thinking.

My personal feeling, the longer I spend in DC and working in the political domain, is that I get better and better at understanding other people’s ideologies. I also feel that people writing about politics often caricature opponents’ views as part of a rhetorical strategy. But I’ve been back-and-forth on the main issues long enough that I’m pretty sure I could switch this blog’s point of view and do a credible job of offering critiques-from-the-right of the progressive liberal health reform movement and the progressive liberal approach to domestic policy generally. One happy consequence of this is that I find the stubborn persistence of principled disagreement less mystifying than I once did, and have a greater appreciation for what I now think of as a certain irreducibly Kierkegaardian element to ideological commitment that, in turn, helps explain why so many “normal” people have such fuzzy political views.

At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Making it all the odder, the level of self-interest at stake isn’t all that high. Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era. Nobody ever writes a biography about the guy who did a good job of reconciling his party’s ideological base with the parochial interests of local businesses and his campaign contributors.

Meanwhile, political argument is actually dominated to an odd degree by fake-technical discussions about how “people think that x but really it’s y” or “a could achieve b if only he did c” with very little attention given to the crucial moral and ethical dimensions of political disputes and political action.

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